Education is Everything

We all watched in horror last year as the real estate market popped like an over ripe tomato, shaking the entire economy with the violence of its implosion.

As people lost homes and jobs, tax revenue at all levels of the government shrunk precipitously. Deficits — already out of control after eight years of an administration bent on passing a crippling financial burden on to our generation — exploded.

In many states, shrinking property tax and income tax revenues led to the threat of massive layoffs where our society could least afford them: in the public school system.

The stimulus package passed by the Obama administration staved off this threat — for a little while. As the stimulus money, always intended as a band-aid rather than real reform, dries up, the specter of teacher layoffs has again reared its ugly head.

The public school system was in trouble long before the current crisis. As salaries remained stagnant over the last few decades, many of the best and brightest teachers fled the schools in favor of higher-paying, higher-status jobs. Today, many teachers come from the bottom of their class into a field with long hours, meager salaries and demanding students.

Despite their best intentions, American public schools have fallen far behind both their private and foreign competition.

Public school students are about to fall even further behind. Without stimulus funds or a substantial property tax base, most schools are facing significant budget deficits. Many of them will take the same, horrifying measure of cutting budgets for after school activities, laying off support staff and firing the teachers who have not been rendered immune to reform by tenure.

The activities and electives that keep students most engaged in their education will disappear.

Class sizes will expand; test scores will contract. Children will be left behind, unable to gain entry into selective colleges or compete in the global marketplace.

Education is the cornerstone of a liberal democracy, the silver bullet for the problems of society.

It reduces crime rate, unwanted pregnancies, unemployment and the rapidly expanding inequality between the haves and the have-nots. Good public schools help to level the playing field and promote socioeconomic diversity in college and the workplace.

Without a great system for educating those who can’t afford the cost of tuition or the time to travel to private schools, we risk severe damage to the middle class and to the American dream.

If students in public schools can’t keep pace with their competition from kindergarten all the way through high school, no amount of work in college will allow them to overcome the deficit.

Comprehensive education reform has fallen out of the public consciousness: President Bush tried and failed, and the fallout makes another attempt unlikely.

Plus, with the state of the economy and a pressing need for financial, immigration, and energy reform, President Obama and the Democratic Congress have more than enough on their plate. Education should take first priority. Pumping money into the public school system — increasing teacher salaries to attract the best and brightest back into the system, retaining the activities that hold student’s interests and shrinking class sizes so that students receive more personal attention — is the most important step in putting the economy back on track.

America’s economy has always been driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. And those qualities can’t always come from the upper class.

That didn’t work for Rome, or the British Empire, and it won’t work for the United States.

The American dream requires that all hard-working citizens have the opportunity to join the world economy, regardless of their financial background.

Education is the ultimate economic stimulus. Without major public education reform — on the federal, state or local level — any other measure we take to shore up our economy is merely a band-aid.

Vermont Governor’s Race – A “Dunne” Deal?

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and to ask him about the campaign to replace retiring Governor Jim Douglas in 2010. Dean had the surprising thought that Susan Bartlett — the longtime chair of the state senate appropriations committee — might make the best governor, even though she appears to lack the campaign skills of her rivals. Dean conceded that all five Democratic candidates would do a great job as governor and lamented that none would likely win a clear majority in the hotly contested primary race.

The five Democratic contenders, who spoke at a forum this Sunday at Middlebury, had few differences between their stances on the major issues; all agreed on the need for more jobs, affordable healthcare and clean energy. As every candidate alluded to in the debate, the most important quality in the Democratic nominee is the ability to defeat Republican candidate Brian Dubie.

In a field teeming with technically qualified candidates, one stands out for his ability to connect with voters and for the clarity of his proposals: former state Senator Matt Dunne — who currently manages Google’s community affairs program — possesses the energy and the knowledge necessary to be both a great candidate and a great governor for this state.

Several weeks ago, Dunne spoke in depth with a group of the Middlebury College Democrats. We sat down with him for over an hour and received long, practical answers to questions about everything from education to agriculture policy. He spoke with intelligence and excitement about his plan to replace the crumbling Vermont Yankee nuclear plant with two carbon-neutral biomass plants and laid out a path to provide health care access to all Vermonters.

In a race dominated by candidates who have eagerly awaited Douglas’s retirement, Dunne stands out as a rising star — someone with vision, not just the next politician in line.

Vermont cannot afford to elect another Republican. In a state with an overwhelming Democratic majority, with the Senate’s only socialist member and where two-thirds of votes cast went to Barack Obama, it’s silly to even imagine a Republican contending in the gubernatorial race. And yet Governor Douglas’ retirement marks the end of four terms in office where he presented a firm roadblock to Vermont’s ability to move forward on many issues.

In 2006, Douglas vetoed an act preventing gender identity discrimination, only to be overruled the next year. In 2009, the governor vetoed a law allowing same-sex marriage and was courageously overridden by the legislature. He has vetoed campaign finance reform several times, a resolution to replace the un-democratic electoral college with a popular vote and a renewable energy bill because of a tax increase aiming to balance the budget.

Douglas leaves his office with a $150 million budget deficit and no coherent plan to replace the Vermont Yankee plant. A Republican governor in Vermont after Douglas’ retirement would continue to serve only as a foil to the public interest and a burden on the public checkbook.

As students in such a small, politically progressive state, we have the opportunity to make a difference, and we need to take advantage of that chance to produce a government that represents our values. Brian Dubie’s administration would not represent those values, or the values of the state of Vermont.

There are still many months until the Democratic primary, and even longer until the general election in November. Now is your chance to make a difference. Join me, Bill McKibben and the thousands of Vermonters who support Matt Dunne for Governor. In such a small state, your vote — and, more importantly, your voice — truly matters.